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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Time is but a Shadow

My parents are moving. They are leaving their house in the woods to a bright new condominium in the closest small city about ten miles north.  In the days before my dad was admitted to the hospital for his scheduled non-invasive hip surgery, I did some work to get ready for their transition.

It was a glorious bluebird day in mid-coast Maine. I surveyed the old woodpile in their front yard. Ten years ago the tree had come down. At the time, my sister and I loaded up the wood racks on the front porch, dutifully created a wood pile and then covered it with a blue tarp. 


A magnificent rhododendron in someone else's front yard
around the corner from my parent's house in Maine.. 
In northern regions, blue tarps are legendary for covering up all sorts of mysterious things. Sometimes the tarps evolve into their own identify, a mainstay of presence that slowly fades in the sun. They are a symbol of that which will be used someday, but not now. Perhaps there is hope that the items and the tarps themselves will melt in the spring sun after the long winter. However, each year the distinctive blue returns, reminding us of all the things in our lives that have been ignored, shrugged off as too much or remain simply a secure object in the landscape. Clearly, a house with a blue tarp in the front yard was not that marketable.

With a walking and pulling, the tarp ripped off into pieces and threads, Small logs had fallen asunder, creating an incredible heap of wood chips and compost.  Ants swarmed out of the layers of plastic as the pile was revealed: a midden of decaying matter and vibrant microorganisms with slow motion smells of rich earth in progress and the ripe colors of fungus.  The fireplace sized logs crumbled in my hands, soaking through the gloves as all matter of insects scurried about. Slugs appeared bloated and gluttonous with undisturbed feeding.  The pitchfork blades reached deep into the pile of now rotten wood- a glorious celebration of the passage of time and the fleeting transience of life. It was too much to move it all around the yard that day; my parents are now facilitated to find someone to deal with it or simply use it to improve habitat.  

The next morning, it was time to work in the basement. I tackled the letter boxes of 30 years of tax files. The slips of gasoline receipts from the station on the corner, the vaccination and check-up schedules from the doctor’s office, pay-stubs recorded on computer punch cards.   The diligent accounting of everyday family expenses slipping down into the recesses of the shredding bin. Ancient overruns of magazines from my father's professional work, loads of old papers and paperbacks discolored, yellow and spotted with mold. There was no need to keep it. I was still working with my father’s papers in the basement, just as I had when I was 14 in 1976. Things do not really change.
Just one box of many. 

“My mother always said, ‘Time is like a shadow.’” Bob the chatty hotel bartender said as he poured my mother and I our third glass of wine after the first evening of my dad’s surgical journey.We were giddy in the accomplishment of the procedure, planned for months while Dad suffered quietly in pain. We were staying in a hotel as the house in the woods was over an hour's drive from the hospital.  


The daily routine of hotel check-out and hopefulness, disappointments, waiting for medical professionals who tippy-tapped into computer monitors during their dialogues with my father, uncertainty, bad food, grumpiness and the tension of captivity, cumulated with "just a few more days to be sure" of the sickly antiseptic smell of a rehab center/nursing home. Wispy haired women waitedin wheelchairs. I scurried back to the house in the woods to tend to the garden, do the recycling and direct all my emotions into getting things done.   In one night, I dreamed I was crawling across a bridge over a large chasm, noting the deeply frayed cable above me.
A glimmer of nature on a walk in the woods with my oldest
nephew and the dog.  A beautiful bench all hand hewn. 
This crevasse of fear and concern opened as I witnessed aging- my own, my parents, and my sister's now teenage children who I last knew very well when they were 7 and 5 years old. Oldest daughters in traditional Cambodia culture often assume the care for parents, and as a single person there was no one else for me to take care of. The dutiful/loving role of matrimony was obvious for both my parents and for brother in law and my sister, who had another major surgery, which also occurred during my visit.  I was feeling quite alone, supporting my family through travails, but it was important to be there. I was happy to do it.
1992- a time when I had no home and
inconsistent work. The book was called
"Vagabonding in the USA". I still wear
a pink bandanna in the field. 

These questions remained gaping in the sense of my own state of transience as a single expat, now over 50, with no base of operations to call my own home. How will I age? Where will I live when I can no longer muster the resources to cope with the maintenance needed to steward a home, let alone my body. What trustworthy person will come to take care of me when I need it? 

In these moments of sometimes volatile vulnerability, I slipped into a morass of self-doubt in the great unknowns of my own future and the eventual repatriation. The grand open step of what is next loomed large and mysterious. The thoughts of years to come abounded and multiplied, creating a spiral of questions of where, who, how and what. The spirit of "I believe" wavered under the stress despite phone conversations with old friends and my internal attempts to reassure myself,

Now returned to Cambodia, I am far distant from those personal worries for now. My apartment is cheap and serviceable. There are plenty of fruits and vegetables. The future of my workplace is evolving, with directions ahead. There are no firm decisions to be made now, so the questions can be placed under a tarp until more months pass.  

The rainy season has started the dynamic and unexpected of everyday life. Small raindrops fall from a sunny sky, the plants seem happy and fresh and the flame trees that shelter the small community of commerce across the street from my house are now filled with brilliant red flowers and verdant foliage.